An Enigmatic 1805 “Game of Bace” in New York

With this seventh of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by George A. Thompson, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. George reads all he can in newspaper coverage in New York City in the 1800s, a habit that led to the discovery of a previously unknown reference to baseball in 1823.

These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1805.4, reflects that it is the fourth Protoball entry for the year 1805.

1805.4 An Enigmatic 1805 “Game of Bace” in New York

George A. Thompson

Sporting Intelligence.— Yesterday afternoon a contest at the game of Bace took place on “the Gymnasium,” near Tylers’ between the gentlemen of two different clubs for a supper and trimmings. One of these clubs has taken the very classical appellation of Gymnastics, and the other the no less classical one of The Sons of Diagoras, (not confined however to the number there [sic: properly “three”] but with great submission to the taste of the gentlemen we think a plain English name would have sounded quite as well as either. Great skill and activity it is said was displayed on both sides, but after a severe and well maintained contest, Victory which had at times fluttered a little from one to the other, settled down on the heads of the Gymnastics, who beat The Sons of Diagoras 41 to 34.1

A few years ago, while reading an early–19th century New York newspaper, I came upon this report. One of the two clubs involved had published a call to meeting the day before:

NOTICE. The Sons of Diagoras are requested to meet on the Gymnastic ground, on Friday the 23d [sic] instant, precisely at 3 o’clock P.M. By order of the President.2

This notice was repeated the following day, with the date corrected.3 I have not found a call to meeting from the Gymnastics for this event. That club was a well established one, though, having existed at least since the year before:

by order. The Members of the Gymnastic Association are requested to meet at Mr. Tyler’s, on Saturday next, at 3 o’clock P.M.4

The “Sons of Diagoras” had taken the name of their club from an Olympic boxing champion, the subject of the seventh Olympian Ode by Pindar, written in the mid–5th century BC. His three sons (and the sons of his two daughters) were also Olympic champions.

As for the Gymnastics, a book by Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths (also rendered as Gutsmuths), whom we have met earlier (see David Block’s Item 1796.1), called Gymnastics for Youth, or, A Practical Guide to Healthful and Amusing Exercises: For the Use of Schools, had been published in Philadelphia by William Duane in 1802 and had become a bestseller.

Nothing is known specifically about the “Gymnasium” or the “Gymnastic ground.” It was described as “near Tyler’s,” where the Gymnastic Association was accustomed to meet, and for that place we can do better.

Joseph Tyler was an actor who decided to capitalize on his popularity by opening a “Mead Garden”; it was remembered 25 years later as “a long afternoon’s walk” out of town toward Greenwich, at what had come to be the southwest corner of Spring and Hudson streets.5 This sort of resort was popular with New Yorkers of the day: Imagine the present-day park at Washington Square, or even one of the “community gardens” created in vacant lots around Greenwich Village, being run as a business, offering New Yorkers a place to sit during the summer months in the fresh air among flowers, while buying light beverages and snacks.

A few years after this game of “bace” was played, Tyler’s garden was offered for lease, in an advertisement giving a useful description: There was a house, with

13 rooms and 2 kitchens, a smoak jack, copper &c. with an excellent wine cellar; likewise, a new stable, which can be converted into a store house for goods; also, a spacious green and hot house full of exotic plants, grapes, &c. which will be sold, if not disposed of with the lease. The garden contains near two acres, abounds with a quantity of fruit trees, and a variety of beautiful flowering shrubs; the house and garden commands a view of the north river, a small distance from the New-Market.6

But what was the game of “bace”?

“Bace” was possibly an early version of baseball, but another possibility is that it was an adult form of “prisoner’s base,” known primarily as a chasing and tagging game played by children. It has been carefully examined by Thomas Altherr.7

Joseph Strutt, writing in England in 1801, described the game as follows:

The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal number, each of them having a base or home, as it is usually called, to themselves, at the distance of about twenty or thirty yards. The players then on either side taking hold of hands, extend themselves in length, and opposite to each other, as far as they conveniently can, always remembering that one of them must touch the base; when any one of them quits the hand of his fellow and runs into the field, which is called giving the chase, he is immediately followed by one of his opponents; he again is followed by a second from the former side, and he by a second opponent; and so on alternately, until as many are out as choose to run, every one pursuing the man he first followed, and no other; and if he overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one toward their game, and both return home. They then run forth again and again in like manner, until the number is completed that decides the victory; this number is optional, and I am told rarely exceeds twenty.8

Strutt also described another more complex version of the game, in which a captured player was brought to a prison where he was obliged to stay unless rescued by a teammate.

The version of the game with prisons could be played to a conclusion, which would arrive when all members of a team had been captured. That would seem to be a conclusive indication of the winning side. But Strutt reports that scoring was sometimes used to determine the winning side, and so it is conceivable that the 1805 game followed such a rule.

But some researchers think it may well have been a ballgame. Altherr finds the very idea of a score puzzling: “If this game was the same as ‘prisoner’s base,’ it would be the only one ever located (in the U.S.) that was played to a score,”9 and John Thorn points out that the 41–34 score “resembles scores of baseball games played more than a half a century hence.”10 And the term “base” is not uncommon as a name for baseball. One New York City example appeared about 16 years after this 1805 game:

KENSINGTON HOUSE is beautifully situated on the banks of the East River, distant four miles and a half from New-York, and is a pleasant ride from the city through the Third Avenue…. The grounds of Kensington House are spacious, and well adapted to the playing the noble game[s] of cricket, base, trap-ball, quoits and other amusements; and all the apparatus necessary for the above games will be furnished to clubs and parties.11

If it was a ballgame, it deserves attention as one of the very earliest American game reports we know, occurring only 14 years after the term “base ball” was first used in the U.S., and decades prior to the emergence of the first baseball clubs.

Notes

1. New-York Evening Post: Apr. 13, 1805, p. 3, col. 1. (This story was reprinted in the New-York Herald: Apr. 17, 1805, p. 1, col. 5.)

2. Daily Advertiser: Apr. 11, 1805, p. 3, col. 1.

3. Daily Advertiser: Apr. 12, 1805, p. 3, col. 2.

4. Morning Chronicle: Apr. 9, 1804, p. 2, col. 2.

5. Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer: Nov. 14, 1831, p. 2, col. 3. The history of Tyler’s garden is summarized in: Garrett, T. 1978. “History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700–1865,” unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, pp. 143–157.

6. New-York Evening Post: Jan. 27, 1808, p. 3, col. 4.

7. Altherr, T. 2009. “Base Is Not Always Baseball: Prisoner’s Base from the 13th to the 20th Centuries,” Base Ball 3.1 (p. 74).

8. Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period (pp. 68–69). A newspaper article on prisoner’s base from the late 19th century recommended keeping score: “a better plan is to put a time limit to the game—say one hour. When time is up, the count of prisoners is made and the side having the greatest number is declared winner.” “The Game of Prisoner’s Base,” The Daily InterOcean: May 25, 1890, part 3, p. 17, col. 4.

9. Altherr 2009, 76.

10. Thorn, J. 2009. “Origins of the New York Game,” Base Ball 3.1 (pp. 109–110).

11. New-York Evening Post: June 2, 1821, p. 3, col. 1; New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: June 7, 1821, p. 3, col. 4. For more on Kensington House, see the Hershberger essay, Item 1821.5.

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